When Polley made history in Paris

July 14, 2012 12:57 am | Updated 01:02 am IST - KOCHI:

Qatar and Brunei will be sending women to the Olympics for the first time this month. Even Saudi Arabia, after wavering for the last few weeks, has finally decided to send a lady to London.

Well, who is India’s first woman at the Olympics?

While, almost all would say it’s P.T. Usha they would be way off the mark.

India’s first woman Olympian was N. Polley who competed in the tennis event at the 1924 Paris Olympics. The Indian tennis team made its Olympic debut that year and it also marked the first time the country was sending a woman to the Olympics.

In fact, the seven tennis players alone made half the Indian Olympic team in Paris!

Dorab Tata, the elder son of the Jamsetji, the founder of the House of Tata, financed the Indian team for the Paris Games.

Dorab, who was a member of the International Olympic Committee and who later launched the Indian Olympic Association, had funded three runners to the 1920 Antwerp Games too, virtually starting the Olympic movement in India.

Coming back to Paris and Polley, results show that after getting a bye in the first round, the 31-year-old defeated Greece’s Lena Valarioti Scaramanga 1-6, 5-3, 6-2 in the second round before losing to Spain’s Lili de Alvarez 6-0, 6-3 in the pre-quarterfinals.

Polley also figured in the mixed doubles with Sydney Jacob — who led India in its very first Davis Cup tie in 1921 — and after a long battle, lost 9-7, 4-6, 9-7 to Ireland’s D’Ancy and Hilda Wallis in the pre-quarterfinals.

Mysterious lady

But there was another mysterious lady, M. Tata, in that Indian tennis team. Was it the Bombay-born, Bangalore-educated Mehri, Dorab Tata’s wife?

It could be, for M. Tata’s age (45) in the 1924 Paris Olympics records, matches her date of birth (October 10, 1879).

Mehri was an excellent tennis player and she took pride in the national dress and played in a saree. According to details available at the Tata Central Archives, she once won a triple crown in the Western India tennis tournament. Both Mehri and Dorab were very successful in all-India tournaments too.

Mehri, or Lady Meherbai as she was later known, was a familiar figure at Wimbledon and also won prizes at international events at Kissingen and Baden-Baden in Germany.

And according to the International Tennis Federation’s Media Guide for the London Games, M. Tata and her partner Mohammed Saleem got a bye in the first round in Paris and conceded a walkover in the second round to Americans Vincent Richards and Marion Jessup, who went on to take the silver medal.


But there’s some confusion here. While the ITF and 1924 Olympics tennis fixtures have given the Saleem-Tata pair a first round bye, the mixed doubles entry list gives a ‘N. part’ against her name.

The Hindu ’s 1924 July 17 edition, also has a mention of it, saying…In the third round of mixed doubles, Flaquer and Lili Alvarez walked over Saleem and Lady Tata (India) scratched.

Did Tata pull out to allow Mohd Saleem to concentrate on his singles? Or was she unwell? Did the organisers stop her because she wanted to play in a saree? Was she around for the first round?

It sure will be interesting to know.

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